CAMPAIGN VICTORY: Water Companies commit to real-time data on sewage discharges year-round

In our 30th year campaigning for clean seas and building on the amazing work of dedicated SAS campaigners from the last three decades, we launched the #EndSewagePollution campaign to put a stop to sewage pollution. We combined forces with other organisations, environmental NGO’s, local campaign groups, national governing bodies, and media as well as almost 50,000 ocean activists across the country who signed the #EndSewagePollution petition to demand beautiful, clean and safe water to enjoy for sport, recreation and recovery of nature.

Together, we’ve been emailing MPs through the Safer Seas Service, calling out water companies on their continued poor performance, and demanding politicians pipe up and take action to #EndSewagePollution.

Together we have been making bigger waves than ever and we are starting to be heard! In response to our calls, last summer, the UK Government put together the Storm Overflow Taskforce with representatives from DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Ofwat as well as Water Company directors, and Blueprint for Water (a group of environmental NGO’s) to look for solutions to sewage pollution.

Today the Taskforce announced their goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows and set out their first steps on this journey.

Included in this announcement are some big wins for ocean lovers and water users.

Campaign Victory 1:

Water companies will make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round.

This is great news and something we have been campaigning on for years. As it stands three of the seven water companies in England do not provide year-round information outside of the official bathing season, this means water users may have been being exposed to polluted water without knowing.

This change means that all water users, regardless of who their water company is, will be able to access information about when and where raw sewage has been discharged into bathing waters all year round.

We look forward to being able to include this information in the Safer Seas Service this year to empower surfers, swimmers and kayakers to make an informed decision about how, when and where they use the sea, be that in bleak January or sunny August.

Campaign Victory 2:

Water companies will have to publish on their website how many times they have used CSO’s to pump raw sewage into the environment each year.

This means we will be able to more easily hold water companies to account for the damage they are causing to the environment and track the progress that these companies are making or not making.


Whilst we welcome some of the positive steps announced today there are still some glaring gaps and much remains much to be done to tackle the long term causes of sewage pollution.

Amy Slack, Head of Campaigns and Policy said,

‘We welcome todays announcement from the Storm Overflows Taskforce as their first step in helping to tackle Sewage Pollution. We are especially happy to see water companies commit to provide real time monitoring data all year round. This is vital to allow water users to make informed decisions about when and where they choose to surf or swim.

The announcement however falls short of the calls that almost 50,000 of us made to the Government as part of our #EndSewagePollution petition. If we really are going to eliminate the harm caused by sewage pollution we need to see rapid action from government, business and regulators to eliminate the long term causes of pollution.’

We took a closer look at today’s announcement against our campaign asks to highlight what still needs to be done to #End Sewage Pollution.

1. An enhanced water-quality testing regime

WHAT WE NEED: An enhanced regime which gives a true picture of the UKs water quality and tests for emerging threats such as antibiotic resistant bacteria and viruses.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: Well nothing. There is no mention of what the Government and Regulators will do to improve our out of date testing regime which is no longer fit for purpose.

WHAT WE NEED: Accurate real-time water quality information available all-year round for all UK inland and coastal bathing areas.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: As it stands three of the seven water companies in England do not provide year-round information. But with this announcement all water companies will now provide real-time data to water users. Which is great news as it will help water users make informed decisions about how, when and where they use the sea. We hope that by the start of the 2021 bathing season, all water companies will be providing year-round real-time data.

We also welcome the announcement that Water companies will accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023.

However, we still need to make sure that the data water companies provide is clear, logical and consistent. We also want to see water companies provide real time monitoring information for all discharges, not just those which discharge into bathing waters. This includes discharges into rivers and other inland waters.

2. World-leading water quality legislation

WHAT WE NEED: We need an Environment Bill that exceeds existing EU water quality standards.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: Today’s announcement falls short of a legal commitment to maintain and improve Water Quality standards now that we have left the EU.

WHAT WE NEED: We need sewage legislation that sets ambitious and legally binding targets to end untreated sewage discharge in all bathing waters by 2030.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: The announcement does not set targets, to end untreated sewage discharge. Instead it merely sets a vague goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows with no time frame.

However, it does contain some small steps in the right direction are being taken. As part of the Taskforce’s work water companies will now be required to annually report on their use of CSO’s. This will allow us all to hold them to account if no action is taken, or progress is not fast enough.

Water companies have also committed to improve 798 storm overflows between 2020 – 2025 to lessen their impact on the environment. We look forward to seeing the details of how this goes over and above which has previously been committed. We also hope that this will include the worst performing CSO’s, not just the easy options as well as include a significant number of CSO’s impacting on inland water ways, particularly around recreational areas.

WHAT WE NEED: We need legislation that upholds the same high standards for both inland and coastal waters.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: The announcement is silent in this area.  We want measures introduced to encourage the designation of Inland bathing waters in order to drive forward standards in our rivers and lakes, as proposed by the Sewage (Inland Waters Bill).

3. Nature-based solutions to sewage pollution

WHAT WE NEED: We need increased investment and associated targets for the restoration of natural habitats to reduce pressure on the water systems and help prevent sewer overflows.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: The announcement does not mention nature-based solutions and the crucial role that they can play to reduce pressure on water systems as well as to help nature recover and tackle climate change. We look forward to see what proportion of the water companies £5bn environment program will support progressive nature-based solutions.

4. Investment from water companies

WHAT WE NEED: We need water companies to invest urgently in their sewage infrastructure and end the use of emergency sewage overflows.

WHAT THEY SAY THEY’LL DO: Water companies have committed £1.1 Billion over the next five years to improve the monitoring and management of storm overflows. This is a massive chunk of money and we look forward to seeing this spent to deliver the best environmental outcome possible.

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, the announcement today makes some really positive steps forward and it is clear that our calls are starting to be heard and acted upon.

We are pleased to see real progress being made on provision of year-round real-time water quality information, as well as publicly available annual data from water companies about the sewage discharges they are responsible for. We also very much welcome the acceleration and increased investment proposed.

The measures included in the announcement however do not go far enough in tackling the long term causes of sewage pollution and  still falls far short of the measures proposed in the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill. Much therefore still remains much to be done to #EndSewagePollution.

The road to ending sewage pollution will be a journey and whist we are not under any illusion that this will be solved overnight, its critical that progress starts NOW.